By Nicolas Haddad
There’s an argument to be made that there’s something wrong with the way Aboriginal Peoples are represented in the world of fashion, and it goes beyond Justin Bieber’s new tattoo.
Inspiration for new styles are drawn from anywhere and everywhere. But with the rising popularity of Aboriginal-inspired icons, the fashion world has to consider how ethical it is to use another culture’s symbols without knowing what they represent.
“Fashion is: you wear something because it’s an expression of yourself, and you wear it because you like to wear it. So it’s not necessarily that you wear it because you know what it means or you understand what the designer wants it to mean, but it’s because you appreciate what it means to you,” says Michelle Cameron, a student from University of King’s College whose part-time job is in retail.
Cameron says similar to bohemian trends, native American-inspired designs have a place in today’s fashions, “Moccasins and beads and flats that have fringe on them are trendy and people do wear them. People wear it to be trendy but it doesn’t really mean anything to them.”
So what happens when the invisible line is crossed? The feathered headdress, a fundamental Aboriginal icon symbolizing status and sacred knowledge, has re-emerged into popular hipster culture.
WHEN IS IT OK?
Glenn Knockwood, youth coordinator for the Kitpu Youth Project at the Mi’kmaq Friendship Centre says, “There’s a term for that, the adoption of style from a culture that isn’t your own: it’s appropriation.”
“There’s this big movement towards popularity of the appearance of ‘aboriginal-ness’ but it’s also a stereotypical image of aboriginal people. Say you’re wearing a headdress. Oh, well, what tribe does that come from? Where is the origin of that?” says Knockwood.
There are more than 600 bands or tribes across Canada, and patterns or motifs are often passed down for generations. Current stereotypes perpetuate the false idea that native culture and traditions are a thing of the past, since they don’t always wear their traditional garb.
Knockwood says nowadays, “Regalia is ceremonial wear. It’s meant to be an expression to the creator and the spirit.”
Debbie Eisan from the Halifax Aboriginal People’s Network has found that, “It starts as early as arts and crafts when 5 year-olds make paper headbands with the colourful feathers.”
Every colour, ribbon, and even the choice of hide have a traditional meaning among Aboriginal groups.
“From the Mohawk to the Mi’kmaq, every tribe has their own designs and clothing, and the way we wear that clothing, people will recognize us,” says Eisan.
COMMERCIALIZED OR WESTERNIZED?
Michelle Bernard, a psychology student at Dalhousie University grew up on-reserve in Indian Brook, N.S.
Though understanding of where people are coming from, she remains on the fence, “I say it’s wrong, but I’d like to dress up as Pocahontas for Halloween too. I’m still very conflicted about it. It’s such a form of capitalism, and someone’s making money off it. It’s not authentic and it’s getting money into the wrong people’s hands.”
According to Bernard, cultural appropriation has actually fed into the tired archetype of the conquering white pioneer looking over his new land with a half-naked red-skinned girl nearby, “It’s perpetuating this trope that Indigenous women are supposed to be sexualized, so that was a big representation of trying to sexualize indigenous settings.”
According to Cameron, it’s not possible to keep the spiritual meaning of an article of clothing when you’re marketing it in North America, “It’s totally a contradiction. When you’re making something into a large trend and you’re commercializing it so that a lot of people like it, it’s going to lose its meaning.”